This time it was real, not a simulation. The car was sliding, backwards, across damp grass, and I knew it, we, were going to hit the wall. A wall of impact-absorbing tires, but a wall, nonetheless. We’ve all heard how when you think you are about to die, your whole life flashes before you. I’ve never felt that kind of danger. Perhaps out of naïveté, or just plain slowness of thought, but I’ve never really thought I was in a pickle that might just kill me. And this was no exception. I never thought I was going to die. Or even get hurt. In this moment of backwards motion, however, I had no slowness of thought. Quite the contrary.
My first thought was how badly I had screwed up. Cresting turn two at Sonoma Raceway, the back end of my recently acquired 1975 Zinc Formula Ford slid left, slightly. I corrected, too much. It slid right, and I corrected again. And I thought, briefly, that things were back to right. I thought wrong, and the forces at play seemingly instantly caused the car to slid drastically to the left again. A classic “tank slapper,” that I spawned and then allowed to gestate to the point where I was quickly merely a passenger heading backwards into a tire wall.
It was then, after all instinctive thoughts and actions had failed, and as the wall grew ever so large ever so quickly in my mirrors, that that rush of thoughts flowed through my brain as if I were, indeed, about to die. Not thoughts of my whole life, since I didn’t think I was about to die, but rather of what had just happened and what was about to happen.
I thought of how hard it was going to be to return to the pits, and a number of well wishing friends, with a wrecked car. I thought of how awful it was going to be to face the car’s previous owner, who had just finished restoring it with great and tender loving care and was kind enough to come to the track to assist me with its first test–I wished he hadn’t been so kind. I thought next of the angle at which I’d hit the wall. Would it be acute enough to be gear box first (very expensive to replace) or sufficiently angled such that only the right rear wheel, and those parts which connect it to the car, would be damaged? I also thought about the fact that I had foregone the wearing of my Head and Neck Restraint Device (mandated for actual racing), since my new helmet was not yet properly fitted with the needed attachment points. Then I remembered that it only protects your neck from front end collisions, not rear-end impacts. That thought left as quickly as it arrived.
Next thought; Maybe divine intervention would save me from all of the above. I’ve only been to church for weddings and funerals, but if becoming a believer would allow the momentary suspension of the laws of physics, just this one time, and allow me a pass on what was otherwise inevitable, and cause my car to miraculously change directions and miss the wall, I’ll believe starting now, thank you very much.
But, whack! No divine intervention. The tire wall gave a bit, then pushed back. 15 or 20 yards from the point of impact, and still on the damp grass all was silent. Just for a few seconds, though, the silence being followed quickly by every curse word I could muster and scream out loud in the privacy of my full face helmet.
After the circuit was black flagged and a rescue truck showed up, I climbed out of the car and surveyed the damage. Most of the right rear suspension bits were either broken or bent. The oil tank was dented by all the bending suspension pieces, and several parts of the frame appeared to be bent. It was not good, though the gearbox seemed to have been spared.
There was little I wouldn’t have given to take back the 5 seconds during which this event had transpired. Very little, indeed. And as the car was hoisted by it’s roll bar behind the crash truck, I struggled to fight back the tears, luckily only welling up a bit, unnoticed, I hope, by those who’d come to help. Professionals no doubt only think about how such mistakes will affect their careers, the race they were in, or the next race they may now not be in. “Get it fixed and get me back out there,” is their dominant thought. But for an amateur hobbyist, me at least, crashing a car on it’s first day out, on a test day, and when there was nothing to gain by trying too hard to go too fast too soon, it was a mortifying experience
I’m always quick to remember that it’s a lucky man who has only to worry about how his little hobby has been impacted. Family, friends, health, are the truly important things in life. Sure, we all know that, but I had failed so completely at something I take some pride in doing fairly well and it was and has been tough. Life, fortunately, though, and racing, goes on, and as several have said to me, if you race enough, this sort of thing happens. So true. I’ve crashed motorcycles, go-karts, even bicycles, enough to know that.
The car is being repaired (ironically by the very same skilled gentlemen I bought it from), and we hope to race it at Laguna Seca in just a few short weeks. Then again, in Sonoma, in April, after which I’ll ship it east, and race once again at various famous venues where cars of its vintage, 1973 to 1981, comprise the most popular group of formula fords. The Lola, my original entry into the world of vintage formula ford racing, is currently being refurbished and will eventually be out west, where it fits nicely into the very West Coast popular 1972 and older formula ford class.
It should be another fabulous summer. I’ve heard it said that race cars drivers are well served to have poor memories. Memory has never been my strong suit so perhaps that weakness will now actually be to my favor. Not sure what getting back on the horse will be like but I imagine I’ll be a little off pace for a little while. The budget is getting thin and I really don’t need to think so much, so fast, at such expense, ever again.
Now that a modicum of catharsis has taken place through the above writing, time has marched on and the horse awaits a ride. The Cross Flow Cup begins this weekend at Laguna Seca Raceway, in Monterey, CA. Tomorrow we head south with repaired car in tow. Rain is forecast, which is rarely wished for, but regardless of likely wet conditions, its Monterey and its Laguna Seca and racing doesn’t get much better than that. With luck, I’ll have positive news to report soon.